Why Self-Cleaning Rituals Are Actually Romantic

Q-Tips have never been so sexy

by Beca Grimm

There are certain self-maintenance practices hard to pull off yourself. Shaving one’s neck, popping bacne, yanking select stray gray hairs. After a certain age, it’s even harder to outsource a second hand—a parent or unlucky friend—to help, so such savory asks get relegated to romantic partners. It’s the cosmic balance of the universe: You want to see a hot person naked regularly, you have to help them excise a monster blackhead occasionally.

Mundane shared experiences, like co-teethbrushing, typically indicates comfort and trust in a burgeoning relationship. Despite the mounting scientific evidence that Q-Tips are dangerous (plus that stomach-churning OCD incident on Girls), ear cleaning remains quietly in the ranks of Gross Things Couples Sometimes Do For Each Other.

One spring, I impulse-bought ear candles from a crystal shop in the supposedly haunted town of Cassadaga, Florida, during a road trip. These candles are wickless cones, with the narrow end designed to shallowly dip into an ear canal. You light the wide end on fire and the building pressure “pulls” the wax out. There’s some question about the scientific validity of ear candles, but unlike the hazards of some tactics, they don't hurt. Plus, with ear candles, there’s the huge, perverted payoff of cutting open the cone after each ear to see what came out.

They were for my partner at the time, a man who worked with his hands and, as such, accumulated a lot of... gunk. I knew we were getting serious when I finally felt empowered to stick my finger in his ear—and he acquiesced. It became a regular indulgence though he limited me to one dive per ear per day and actively hated it the entire time. Helping him remove visible wax brought me immense satisfaction, though of course such activity was relegated to his place or mine.

My friend Melissa (some names have been changed in this piece) says she finds similar satisfaction in cleaning her partner’s ears, despite his protests. She says our compulsions to clean make us “pore strip people,” the kind of breed who delight in extracting impurities. 

It’s isn’t for everyone, sure, and I’ll never live down my shame for suggesting such in the ladies-only work Slack channel. Although Melissa’s and my tastes are very... singular in Western culture, light Googling and friend interviews revealed deep ear cleaning as a lovers’ ritual, specifically, is fairly common in some Asian countries. Cay, a friend who grew up in Japan, told me people use something called mimikaki—essentially a small, curved scoop—to help each other clean their ears. As a child, a parent or other trusted adult does the honors, not unlike American kids enduring a Q-Tip cleaning. But once grown, it’s hard to find a friend jazzed about digging into your ear canal as a non-sexual favor.

So, we ask significant others.

I never used the ear candles on the intended man, but the one with whom I finally did, it was a weirdly bonding experience. Matt and I’d been seeing each other a couple months and although never officially official or exclusive, he comfortably stored his toothbrush at my house. One night we got a little stoned and set up an area to “candle” (candle! It’s a verb, too) each other.

You have to trust a person to let them hold open flames inches from your head and face. We set up camp on the floor of my bedroom. Although many ear candling tutorials recommend wrapping a paper plate in tin foil to act as an exhaustive ashtray (charred candle pieces sometimes take to the wind, which is beautiful yet ultimately dangerous), Matt and I instead opted for a damp rag to protect flammable hair. I did his first, both our nerves soothed by the weed we smoked before. After burning down to danger levels, we stubbed it out and swapped positions. Then cutting open our respective cones to reveal truly vile (yet wildly satisfying) findings was the proverbial icing on the cake. I felt immediately bonded to him, even still in some amorphous ways since our split months ago.

Ear cleaning’s intimacy is a universal enough concept Western salons have started offering eye candling services, regardless of inconclusive scientific evidence about its personal health validity. Similarly, the ritual has enjoyed some ASMR popularity, with videos applying candling as well as mimikaki service narratives reaching the hundreds of thousands of views.

Matt’s and my ear cleaning experience was singular; I understood the attraction yet returned to standard Q-Tipping while Cay gifted me a legit, tortoiseshell mimikaki grabbed during a recent trip to visit her grandmother. I held onto it, waiting for the opportunity to request a deep clean to present itself. Single and strapped with a Craigslist roommate from whom I’m reluctant to ask favors, I caved the night before Valentine’s Day and took to task myself. 

I scientifically tilted my tri-fold bathroom mirror in attempts to see inside my ear canal. A family friend is deaf in one ear, a casualty from overly aggressive cleaning. Visions of him loudly ordering at restaurants and checking out of conversations flashed before my eyes as I stuck the tawny wand into my right ear. I gave up quickly, scared of suffering a similar fate from this stupid fucking quest in self-sufficiency.

As much as I feel totally competent doing most things—hygienic or otherwise—solo, unfortunately, some tasks necessitate a second party. For some seasons in life, that can luckily be done by an enthusiastic or withdrawn romantic partner. And for others, well, you can always pay.